WASHINGTON — Roman Josi wasn’t even 19 the first time he played for Switzerland at hockey’s world championship, but captain Mark Streit saw something special in the young defenceman during that tournament.
“You could tell that he’s going to be a really good player,” Streit said.
Six years later, Josi is quietly having one of the best offensive seasons among NHL defencemen. Playing alongside Norris Trophy front-runner Shea Weber, Josi has 55 points and is earning major praise from his former coach, Barry Trotz.
“A guy like Roman Josi is probably the Erik Karlsson of the Western Conference,” the Washington Capitals’ coach said Saturday. “Like Erik Karlsson, he’s got to be watched because he likes to carry the mail, he’s part of the offence, he’s dynamic. … He’s going to be, just as Shea is over there, a Norris Trophy candidate for the next number of years.”
At 24 years old, Josi is a dark horse in the Norris race behind the likes of Weber, P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens and the Erik Karlsson of the East — the captain of the Ottawa Senators. Compelling cases can also be made for Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins and last year’s winner, Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Weber has 45 points himself, a cannon of a shot from the point on the power play and is one of the best shutdown defenders in the league. His consistency and defensive brilliance have helped Josi develop his offensive game.
“(Josi is) obviously playing with Shea, so he gets the hard matchups,” Trotz said. “Any time that you play with a great player like Shea, you pick up things, you have a comfort level, a security blanket there, as well.”
Josi has also matured on a blue-line that includes three other budding stars under age 25: Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. In his second full, 82-game season, he credits experience for his all-around growth.
“Every year you play you try and get better and you try and work on your game,” Josi said. “I’m still learning a lot, I’m still trying to get better every game.”
Streit is from the same hometown of Bern, Switzerland, and works out and skates with Josi in the summertime. He remembers when Josi signed a $28-million US, seven-year contract in 2013, seemingly out of nowhere. Josi had just 34 points in 100 games at that point.
“He signed that long-term deal and obviously not a lot of people knew about him,” the Philadelphia Flyers defenceman said last week. “It’s a little different when you play in Nashville: You’re probably not so much on the radar like if you play in Montreal or Toronto or Philly or the Rangers.”
Even though Josi downplayed Trotz’s comparisons to Karlsson, this season has put him on the map. He’s fifth in the NHL in average ice time (26:25 a game), and his old coach knows Josi deserves that kind of workload.
“Roman, he’s always so good with the puck and his skating ability and he never gets tired,” Trotz said. “But what you notice over time is his ability to defend: His stick detail, his one-on-one play is much better than it was. His strength on the puck in battles is much better as he’s got older and stronger.
“He’s getting better and better all the time. Roman Josi will be a player that you’ll here from for the next number of years.”